Category Archives: Review

Thoughts on Spotify

I was lucky enough to get an early invite to Spotify last week thanks to my high Klout score (I honestly think anyone with a pulse got an invite) and I’ve been playing around with it for a few days. Here’s my thoughts on the service thus far.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m using Spotify for listening to stuff that I don’t already have in my library. This is sort of weird because I recently switched to an SSD and none of my music is actually in my library. Yet I use Spotify for listening to stuff that’s not on my external hard drive (which I almost never have plugged in). I think this behavior might be due to the fact that Spotify is making me a fat kid in a candy store (but for music). I want to keep searching to test Spotify’s limits and see how much music it really has. So far it’s been doing really well.

Specifically, I have been using Spotify mostly to listen to music that was popular when I was in middle school (this was like, 14 years ago). This music is stuff that I’m either too embarrassed to have on my hard drive, or I simply never had. Yet it’s totally great for nostalgia’s sake. I’ve been listening to No Doubt, Toni Braxton, Weezer, Mariah Carey, etc. Stuff that brings me back to that era. It’s pretty cool.

One workflow that Spotify has replaced for me is the awkward one of going to YouTube and looking for a video of a song I want to hear. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to go to YouTube and searched for something like “Head Over Heels” by Tears For Fears just to listen to a song (it’s just a static image of the album cover). It’s much, much quicker just to search in Spotify and get super instant gratification.

Comparisons to the new hot startup, Turntable, are pretty much impossible to avoid. Turntable is really fun for interacting with people (and music discovery), but sometimes you just want to listen to what you want to listen to (and not wait for other DJs before your song comes on). I think the two services have very different use cases, and each works well for its intended use.

One thing Spotify could work on is music discovery. It’s kind of ridiculous the only music it pushes are the top albums, artists and songs. All the stuff on this list are top 20 bullshit that I really have no interest in listening to (just ignore the top 20 “bullshit” from the 90’s that I just admitted to listening to). In this day and age, it’s ridiculous for a music service to not include some kind of recommendation engine or radio feature. Browsing music on the service by genre, year or anything besides search is impossible. In terms of features, Spotify is actually kind of disappointing.

Despite the obvious shortcomings, I have a lot of high hopes for Spotify. It’s a really nice example of how consumers can enjoy getting stuff from “the cloud” without making it too complicated. I hope that it continues to improve, especially in the music discovery and browsing categories.

Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value – Book Review

I just recently finished reading a book, so I better write up a review so I can collect my free Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pizza! I read about Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value on Aaron Swartz’s 2010 Book Review (I’m trying to read as much as that dude does). Pricing has always been pretty interesting to me, so I figured a book about pricing would be a good, quick non-fiction read. Ironically, I opted to pay zero price for the book, borrowing it from the library instead of buying it.

Previously, I read Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, which also concerned pricing, but mostly in the super cheap range. Priceless takes more of a psychological stab at human behavior. There are a few experiments that both books alluded to, like the Hershey’s kiss experiment. Having read these two books (and the Freakonomics ones), I kind of think I should’ve been an economist.

Priceless starts out a bit slow by giving you a crash course in human psychology. Homo Economicus is described as a human who makes only rational decisions, and only the most rational. As a model, HomoEco is probably only useful in lab situations. As the book describes, human behavior is not only often irrational, but also very easy to manipulate. Priming and Anchoring are ways to change a person’s opinion on something before they’ve even seen it.

The book gives this example. Research subjects were asked which percentage of the UN is comprised of African nations. Before that question, they were asked to give an over/under on a percentage. The percentage given was either really low (10%) or somewhat average (60%). The difference in that first question, is the percentage of African nations in the UN above or below (10/60%) affected their guess of what it actually was. The scary thing is that this works with many things, including pricing. Another experiment involved real estate and a differing list prices. Subjects (both normal people and real estate agents) were given list prices of a home and were asked to give a reasonable bid. Even the real estate professionals were susceptible to the anchoring effect of the suggested prices, though to a lesser degree.

After giving a solid scientific basis for human irrationality (specifically regarding pricing), the book goes through many short examples where the these effects were either exploited or tested in slightly different contexts. It’s all pretty interesting stuff, especially to someone who feels they are above Jedi price tricks like me though I am probably not).

There are also a few methods described to try to ward against anchoring and priming. One is to immediately set up an argument. If someone says “do you think this book is worth 26.99?” and you say “yes,” then immediately think of reasons why it might be worth less than that. This is also why you should always take a friend with you to the car dealership to argue with.

Overall I thought the book was really interesting. If you can get past all of the cognitive science at the beginning (I might’ve found it boring because I had heard about most of it before), the second half of the book is a really quick and interesting read.

Delivering Happiness: Book Review

I received an advance copy of Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos. I am posting the book review today because it’s also the official release date of the book! It’s also the day before my birthday, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with this review.

I saw Tony speak at a keynote for the SXSW conference in 2009. The key components of that talk have stuck with me ever since. He basically argued that companies should act more like people. Since they’re made of people, they need to act more holistically while considering more than just revenues. His company, Zappos, has the goal of delivering WOW experiences through service. Basically it’s to make people happy through unbeatable customer service.

I was glad to see that Tony decided to distill that talk (and much more) into book form a little more than a year after his SXSW talk.

The book is mostly a narrative about Tony’s path to becoming an entrepreneur, angel investor, and eventually CEO of Zappos and getting bought by Amazon.com. I say this book is mostly narrative because about halfway through it starts becoming something else. The narrative is funny and quirky, something I’d expect from a guy whose company has a core value of “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness.” He talks about buying worms for a worm farm, then starting a mail order button empire as a kid, which led to selling pizza in college and then creating LinkExchange (which I totally remember using) while working for Oracle.

I feel that Tony and I share a lot in common. I also had many schemes for making money before I had a real job, like selling rocks and doing yardwork, selling Dell coupons on eBay and signing up for random online offers so I could get gift certificates to sites like CDNow (I think Amazon.com bought them). Tony writes about quitting Oracle when he felt his LinkExchange was too good of an opportunity to not devote his full time to, and quitting Microsoft when his company was sold, not waiting for his stock to vest (and losing lots of money in the process):

I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew what I wasn’t going to do. I wasn’t going to sit around letting my life and the world pass me by. People thought I was crazy for giving up all that money… I had decided to stop chasing the money, and start chasing the passion.

Having recently resigned at my own (fairly high-paying) job at Microsoft, I feel the same way. Reading this book was a lot like reading about my own life, at least until the part where he figures out what he does after qutting (I’m still figuring that out, myself).

The narrative section goes up to about the point where Zappos finally ends up getting an important loan and relocates to Las Vegas. After that, the book takes a turn and starts feeling more like a business book. Tony starts including lots of email memos to show what was communicated to the employees at certain points, like when the company had to lay off some employees or when they were sold to Amazon.

Different Zappos employees start writing entire sections like “Vendor Relations by Fred.” This makes the book feel much more fragmented and difficult to follow. The book becomes less about Tony and more about a shared experience. The problem is that it’s riddled with asides, lists, email memos and more. There’s really no organization towards the end of the book and it feels very much thrown together. While the lessons at the end of the book might be useful, I feel as though there could have been two separate books. One from Tony’s perspective that stays as a full narrative, and another book for business people on how to make sure their company’s culture doesn’t poison its employees.

Delivering Happiness is a good book. I believe in its author and in the principles contained within. While I feel it could have been organized better, I still think everyone should read it. It’s an extremely quick read and very entertaining most of the way through. I hope that Tony Hsieh’s message of the importance of company culture reaches more people, and that people have better work experiences as a result.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book. My review is an honest opinion of the book.

Contest rules!
I’m also holding a contest because I got an additional free copy of the book to give away. If you want to win it, retweet this tweet and follow me @hungtruong (so I can DM you). I’ll randomly pick someone to send the book to once I get enough entries (after a day or so). I can only ship to the US; sorry about that!

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything – Book Review

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about work, passion, fulfillment, etc. Maybe I spoke too soon when I wrote about not having a Quarterlife Crisis!

So I picked up this book, “The Element,” about discovering your passion. Ken Robinson argues that many people who are bad or disinterested in what they do just haven’t figured out what they’re good/passionate about, or have given up on pursuing the things they “should” be doing. Once people find that special something, they find a positive feedback loop. They like doing it so they do it more, and they get better at it. They probably also get external positive feedback, etc. With this virtuous cycle, they can achieve super awesome things.

That’s the book in a nutshell. And I really didn’t have to read the whole book to see all the many permutations of this idea over and over again. I think this book really could’ve been a magazine article (maybe it started as one), rather than an entire book. I feel as though Robinson was scraping the bottom of the barrel at some points trying to fill the thing up. The writing is a bit simplistic (probably to cater to the lowest common denominator demographic), and in some parts it’s just plain bad. Here are some instances that I noticed.

Upon describing a woman who dropped out of college when she had her kids, then went back to college, graduated and was offered a big job:

By then, she was having trouble in her marriage, and she filed for divorce. This was a difficult time for Susan.

Really, Ken? No shit! Another completely non-sequitur to start a paragraph in a section about a crisis in human resources:

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there was hardly anyone around.

It really sounds like you could’ve pulled this quote from a third-grade World History essay. On top of the patronizing language, the author seems to go off on tangents that have barely anything to do with the subject matter.

Overall, I do agree with the basic message of the book. I just wish it was more focused and concise. Four stars for concept; two stars for content.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture – Book Review

I recently picked up a copy of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. As a self proclaimed cheapskate (I picked this book up from the library, after all!), I was very interested in the subject.

Ellen Shell does some in-depth research behind the psychology of why we (humans) love cheap stuff. Some of us go bonkers finding good deals, even when it’s not really economical (driving miles to save a few cents on gas). I’ve displayed this behavior in the past, buying videogames when they’re on sale while never having enough time to even finish the ones I’ve started, let alone the new ones I bought. I’ve chilled out a little when it comes to randomly buying stuff, but the allure of a good deal is still strong.

There are also some fun experiments described. Like the one where a person is presented with a crappy Hershey’s chocolate for 1 penny or an upgrade to a premium chocolate for 25 cents. Most people pick the premium. But when the price of the Hershey’s drops to the magical price of “free,” most people go for the free option instead of the “better” 25 cent deal.

Shell also describes the history of the discount store. Originally goods were priced according to quality. It was easy to tell that something made well cost more. But people started selling crappy quality goods at super low prices (and thrive on volume). This caused the more expensive sellers to go out of business. The super low prices made poor people feel like kings, being able to afford new socks instead of repairing their old ones! People could afford to just buy new things, which was good because the new stuff they bought would fall apart pretty quickly (think H&M).

The basic thesis of the book is that people love cheap things, but cheap things come at a cost. The lower class will always be involved (and basically abused), because if you paid people well to make things, the things themselves would need to cost more. This means that working retail sucks. It also means that the conditions for the people making the cheap stuff (mostly in China and Vietnam and other poorer countries) sucks really bad. If people saw what their need for cheap led to, they would probably be willing to pay a bit more to improve the quality of life of the people making their things. Sadly, most people don’t think about it because it is very out of sight.

One interesting section of the book concerned Ikea. I’ve always really liked Ikea because they make fashionable stuff and it is, indeed, cheap. I’ve had issues with their “stainless steel” items from China that rust like the surface of Mars. Overall though, I have a lot of love for their furniture. Learning that they use a hella lot of lumber and their “planned obsolescence” mentality leads to waste makes me reconsider. I’m not sure they’re the devil, but I think that next time I need to furnish an apartment, I may instead think of Crate & Barrel (which has way cute stuff!).

As for getting rid of my own cheap habits altogether, I don’t think I can do it. I will say that I am lucky to have the luxury of being able to choose to spend more or not. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart because I think it’s kind of evil and exploitative. One interesting thing to note is how well Wal-Mart does during a recession due to its focus on crazy low prices… I do shop at PCC because it’s good quality food and Michael Pollan says I should spend more on healthy food. I can’t really justify paying more just for the sake of paying more, however.

The book closes with a story about a company that goes against cheap culture. It’s a grocery store that focuses on customer service instead of price. People really love the store and are willing to pay more because of it. The store actually has fans. I think this is a great example of competing on another factor and really kicking butt doing it. I think that other companies that do this are Apple (for selling high quality products that people develop emotional bonds to) and Zappos (for focusing on customer service above price and making customer happiness their main goal). There is a special place in our brain that loves cheap, but I think there are also other things that are important to people.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture is a really interesting look at where we are and how we ended up this way. It says something interesting about our culture, our brains and ultimately our nature. If you buy just one book this year, then Cheap is probably the book for you! (It’s on sale at Amazon! 35% off!)